Urban Permaculture and Bees

Phil Moore
Thursday, 23rd October 2014

Phil Moore visits Offshoots project set in an urban landscape where bee conservation is mixed with community schemes, wildlife, permaculture and organic growing.

What was once a forgotten Victorian walled kitchen garden is now an accessible public permaculture project. Set within Towneley Hall, Burnley's largest park, Offshoots holds a unique space in the 180 hectares of landscaped parkland.

The once wildlife thicket in a green desert of golf ranges and bowling greens was turned into a community based project rooted in the ethics and principles of permaculture.

Central to Offshoots' current vision are their bees. We visited before the second year of their 'give bees a chance' festival and Phil Dewhurst (who atteneded the PDC in 1997 that designed the site) told us about their bee conservation programme. The building of a laboratory with instrumental insemination kits and microscopes was recently completed for their work in conserving the British black honeybee (Apis melifera melifera).

Once thought lost from these isles, the native honeybees have evolved characteristics that make them more suitable to the UK climate. Their black epithet derives from their hairy bodies, evolved as a response to keeping warmer during our cooler weather. The bees also have a shorter breeding season suited to our so called summers.

As Burnley sits in a shallow valley surrounded by high moorland, Offshoots intend to set up a meta population of disease free genetically identifiable stock (that is, free from interbreeding with the European, and more common honeybees).

As an associate member of the bee farmers association, Offshoots hope to become full members when they hit the required minimum of managing 40 colonies this year. 

Pollination and permaculture

Offshoots seek to share ideas as well as model sustainable sources of income. "We're not business people but we want to prove that permaculture can work and generate livelihoods and wash its own face," says Phil Dewhurst. Their involvement with bees being one of the many ways they set to do this.

On roughly an acre of land, the site layout, more or less true to the original design plan from the foundational PDC in 1997, has stacked its functions to full effect.

Walking the small yet busy site with Lisa, project officer, plant expert, local lass and friend to the bee, we began a tour of the place in the entrance way replete with kitchen herbs - the "scratch and sniff" area as Lisa calls it. Clear signage and tangible demonstrations make for an accessible invitation to the public to explore permaculture.

As we were introduced to a bee favourite plant, Poached Egg (Limnanthes douglasii), and new to us, a pair of local visitors passed by asking the name for globe artichokes and how to prepare them. Continuing on Lisa showed us the extent of the Offshoots project which has education at its core. Natural buildings; polytunnels; a mini forest garden; the lean-to, a sort of walled glass greenhouse which, in Lisa words is the “garden office”; an area for blacksmithing courses; the straw bale compost loo; the woodworking room and a small-scale rotational organic crop production.

The centre of our time, and where we slept the night, was in the Walter Segel Cabin - so named after the architect who developed a model for self-building timber frame homes with as little waste as possible. The aim was to avoid the wet trades of concrete and plaster - and bureaucracy. For more about the man who gave his name to this distinct style of building check out the Segal Self Build website.

The Offshoots rendition includes a living roof (with dog daises), a solar water heater and PV panels and a grey water reed bed system. Based on the homestead model the cabin acts as Zone 0 as well as a classroom and place to hang out.

But as Lisa was keen to point out as we walked past the herb garden and mini food forest, as a demonstration site, Offshoots have included a “normal” home garden demo tucked into the corner of the site. As she explains: “We thought it would be quite arrogant to appear to be saying ‘look at us, we’ve got this beautiful garden’, whereas most people have a backyard. So we created this corner to demonstrate to people how they can grow things in a limited space.”

Impressive in its reach and in its ambition Offshoots don't just go out on a limb, they have vision. Expressly concerned with education, the site runs a slew of courses as well as having a volunteer open day and an active volunteer programme. One of their latest schemes is the Community Garden Makers scheme. Acting as horticultural pollinators if you will, a team of three have been charged with creating 18 community gardens over the coming years.

The relationship to the surrounding community was perhaps best summed up by Phil Dewhurst, manager, in his closing remarks during our conversation. 

Offshoots are currently bidding for the Nesta ‘Rethinking Parks’ project aimed at backing innovative business models for park management.

Burnley has two of the most deprived wards in the country. Burnley Wood, which sits next to Towneley Park, is one of Burnley’s most deprived wards. This contrast between parkland and depressed urban area is a legacy of decline. The closure of the pits and mills in the 20thcentury and the creation of public parks – Victorian philanthropy guised as land that couldn’t be exploited or that was too expensive to maintain.

Fast forward to the 21st century and issues of poverty, work, and public spaces remain. What Offshoots conceives with their ‘Go to the Park’ bid is a revival and reinvigoration of the notion of a park. Often seen as a drain on resources by local councils, the coalition government have made it clear that funding for green spaces is no longer available.

So how to respond creatively to change?

Wedding permaculture to public parks and the public health agenda green spaces could be a place where food is grown, wildlife encouraged, and an inclusive space providing services for those suffering from mental or physical health issues.

“Solid business arguments underpinned with the design and ethical principles of permaculture,” in Phil’s words, could change the way we think about, and use, parks.  

Geographically and philosophically Offshoots occupies an exciting location within the park lands and the minds of the public.

Phil Moore is one half of Permaculture People. Having spent two years travelling the Americas, Phil and partner Lauren are currently touring the UK www.permaculturepeopleuk.tumblr.com and @permapeople

Further resources

Keeping Bees in Towns and Cities for just £14.99 from our Green Shopping site

Apiculture and permaculture: keeping bees


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